WASHINGTON -- More than a thousand Maryland National Guard troops are due to return from Iraq this spring, but essential programs to help ease them into civilian life are underfunded and in disarray, according to Maryland National Guard and U.S. officials.
The Pentagon has resisted funding efforts by Maryland and other states that have sought to avoid problems experienced by previously returning National Guard soldiers, including nervousness, inappropriate anger, sleeplessness, family disputes, marital problems and alcohol abuse.
That leaves the Maryland Guard scrambling to find the volunteers, donations and its own patchwork funding to help reorient soldiers from the dangerous, high-adrenalin battlefield to the joys and stresses of home, family and schools or civilian jobs.
The Maryland Guard's reintegration program is intended to help soldiers recognize whether they have problems and to know where to get help. It includes careful health assessments of the returning soldiers, and a series of seminars and workshops on everything from legal and tax problems to parenting skills, veterans benefits, marriage counseling and anger management.
The Maryland Guard already runs these programs on a small scale, but meeting the anticipated bulge of soldiers returning this spring will be difficult.
"We are operating on a shoestring, begging and borrowing and trying to scrape together money," said Lt. Col. Michael Gafney, the Maryland National Guard flight surgeon who manages Maryland's reintegration programs for returning soldiers.
Seemingly at his wits end, Gafney, who operates out of a shabby one-story building in Edgewood, said half in jest that his latest funding brainstorm is to ask organizations and corporations to "sponsor" groups of soldiers to ensure they get the assistance they need.
Weeks earlier than expected, soldiers of the Maryland National Guard's 158th Cavalry Regiment are due to begin arriving at Fort Dix, N.J. for demobilization March 2, Guard officials confirmed. The headquarters troops of the 58th Brigade Combat Team are scheduled to follow April 1, and the 175th Infantry Regiment starting April 29th, according to current plans.
After five years of war, the military has realized that it needs to make more effort to help returning soldiers than it has in the past. National Guard troops are hit even harder than active duty soldiers because they are separated upon demobilization from the comrades with whom they have developed deep bonds.
They will have "a hard time readjusting," said Laura Copland, Maryland's director for behavioral health disaster services. "There's such a culture shock when they come back. They are asking for real coping skills."
A new Army study, reported Nov. 14 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, said that 42 percent of returning Guard soldiers needed mental health treatment. It said many of them fail to seek help either because care was unavailable or from fear that their problem would be reported in their military records.
Untreated mental health problems tend to manifest themselves later in troubled marriages, family disputes, alcohol abuse and job tensions. A third of National Guard soldiers who return to college drop out during their first semester, Maryland Guard officials said, and one in five plan to separate or divorce.
Anticipating such problems, the Maryland Guard plans to hold reintegration seminars at 30, 60 and 90-day intervals after the soldiers return, both to help soldiers and to train community-based volunteers.
All this costs money - to pay soldiers' expense of attending, to rent space for the workshops, to pay speakers and the medical personnel who perform health assessments. In a similar program, the Minnesota Guard spent about $852 per soldier, Minnesota officials said.
The Pentagon has refused for the past two years to fund such programs, Defense Department officials said.
The National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon office which represents all the state National Guard units, estimated that it would cost $73 million a year for reintegration programs in all 50 states.
Congress last fall passed legislation demanding that the Defense Department fully support the programs. That measure is in the 2008 defense budget, vetoed by President Bush Dec. 28 for unrelated reasons. Even so, the bill provides no money for reintegration programs.
"The federal government should participate in the funding of these programs, there is no doubt in my mind," said Erin Thede, a National Guard Bureau official involved in the reintegration program. "There's a lot of politics involved in making this happen," she acknowledged.
"It would not shock me to hear them say they have to study the program before they put in the money," said a frustrated senior National Guard Bureau official who asked not to be identified.
A Defense Department spokesman, Army National Guard Lt. Col. Les' Melnyk, would say only that funds for the reintegration program "are on hold."
To fill the void, Maryland Guard officials hope to receive as much as $800,000 in state funds. But the money won't be available until the state's fiscal year begins July 1, Guard officials said.
Lt. Gen. Bruce Tuxill, adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, said that given Maryland's own budget problems, he was pleased that "the governor and lieutenant governor are both very firmly committed" to the Guard's reintegration program.
"We are doing a federal mission," Tuxill said, referring to the Guard's deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The cost "should not be borne by the state entirely."
Tuxill and other state officials said they are doing their best to meet the needs of the returning troops, finding state and local money where they can and making use of community volunteers, including clergy, psychologists and psychiatrists, teachers, nurses and others who are working with small groups of soldiers who returned previously.
Many volunteers come through the Maryland Defense Force and such organizations as Pro Bono Counseling, a statewide organization that provides free services.
"We are a community-based organization," said Tuxill, "and we have always found strength in the community."
The reintegration programs will be held, Guard officials promise, but perhaps not as originally envisioned.
They had hoped to hold the sessions at a comfortable hotel where soldiers and their families could meet as groups or individually with counselors, clergy and others, and where day care can be provided.
"These soldiers went out and fought for us," he said.
"Now why can't we find them someplace nice?"